Will We Ever Learn?

I forced myself to watch the grand jury report from Pennsylvania regarding abuse in the Catholic Church.  I was partially curious as to the findings but also spent many formative years in the Diocese of Scranton, which included a few familiar names to me in the report, most of which I had already known.  At times it was hard to listen, not simply as a priest but as a human being.  At times, listening to how the sacred became scandalized and in people’s lives nearly seemed impossible, a thinking that has often led to denial in the life of the Church.  Anything is possible when it comes to human beings.  I still recall the words of Cardinal Tobin at a conference I attended earlier this summer, “All of us sitting in this room are really only a phone call away from our lives being destroyed even if we had done nothing.”  If that’s not perspective on what we live with I’m not sure what is.

I suppose the other common question is, “Why?”  Sure, there’s the question as to why things happen and why was it allowed to continue.  There are certainly plenty of justifications given by leaders.  Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to answer those questions and even more unfortunately is that those who can answer them still often refuse to answer.  The question, and not only posed by others to myself but the very question that at times weighs on my own heart, is, “Why do you stay?  Why do you keep staying with an institution that has done what it has done, and worse yet, fails to take responsibility?”  All good questions, and quite frankly, not always answers, or at least good answers, especially when it feels as if you’re climbing aboard the Titanic as it finds itself already halfway submerged in frozen water.

I believe there’s always been a part of me that has desired to push for reform from the edge of the inside, as Pope Francis often refers.  It’s just a part of who I am as a person.  I can’t say anything has really surprised me, even Cardinal McCarrick, but instead saddens me more than anything and often angers me that protecting and clinging becomes more important than human life.  I believe when the deacon preached about it a few weeks ago I had commented that I’m not here to tell you how to live.  Quite frankly, I have a hard enough time keeping myself in order than telling others how to make choices and what to do with their lives.  All I can really do is help shed light on situations and then give others the freedom to make choices.  When you believe your “business” is to be the ethical or moral police of the world, well, as it was with the Pharisees, you’re going to fail and the harder you try to prevent it and cover-up, the harder the fall.

Someone had said to me that they don’t want this to happen to the Church, but that ship sailed long ago.  Honestly, the Church has brought it upon herself over the years.  It’s tried to live with the illusion of perfection, which, like it or not, will without a doubt lead to putting yourself above God, and like Adam and Eve, it will always lead to failure after failure until you learn to accept that an illusion is just that, an illusion.  It’s not real.  None of it is real.  You cannot be God or Christ nor put yourself in that position.  Just like the rest of our lives, failure can lead to despair or it can lead to change, transformation, just as our faith teaches.  The problem is we’ve become so disconnected from the heart that we believe policy and new rules and zero tolerance is going to solve all problems.  It won’t.  Sure, it has a place, but all of this, and maybe why I stay connected is, about transforming hearts and leading others to that freedom, just as Moses did, with great difficulty, with people Israel through the desert to the Promised Land.  If we just took time to put aside dogma, teaching, and all the other head stuff, and allow ourselves to be transformed from the inside out we are changed forever and so much of the rest falls into place.  Thank God that God is bigger than the Church.  Thank God.  Otherwise I’d have every reason to despair and toss it aside forever.  Thank God I have been forgiven over and over again for stupid decisions and choices that I have made in my life.  It’s the only way.  When you think you’re simply the agent of forgiveness and fail to remember you need it more than anyone, problems will arise.  And they have.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s deflating and hurtful because as a priest we’re all lumped together, just like every other aggregate.  When things first broke back in 2002 I was still a seminarian so it was different then.  I was still protected from it in some sense.  I lived with, albeit a false hope at the moment, that the Church finally learned its lesson.  It hasn’t entirely.  Sure, some, but there’s more to go.  That’s obvious now.  All of us who continue to remain, though, must hold others accountable.  That I believe now more than ever.  It’s going to take a new generation to begin to dismantle, and it needs a dismantling, of the “old boys club” thinking, which exists not only in the Church, but in politics and many other institutions.  It’s not that men should be banned and shunned.  Rather, men need to grow up and certainly men in the Church need to grow up and become more attuned to their own interior life.  It’s the only way.  Buckling down, turning back the clock, tightening grips may seem like the answer but long-term only makes matters worse.  You can only hold someone under water or in a noose so long before it becomes fatal.  We’d find ourselves where we often find ourselves, reactionary rather than proactive, bound rather than free, hiding rather than open, sick rather than healthy, for it is true, you’re only as sick as your worst secret.  We have all the proof we need on that one.

It isn’t to say anything is new in what has been reported out of Pennsylvania, but the very visceral reaction of people, media, and certainly on social media, shows just how little has been done to change hearts, transform, and reform a sick culture, and that goes for Church and culture at large.  It’s easy to say that it all happened before 2002 but that by no means indicates that the culture has changed for the better.  Like any family that thrives on secrecy, which may seem important at the moment, the longer you sit on it and build on that secrecy, the harder it is to contain it over time.  Eventually the truth is revealed and exposed in and through the light.  If anything, we should be thankful that it is being exposed, but again, as long as it leads to transformation.  The fear always is that we’ll wait it out, let it pass, and we can go on with “business as usual”.  Business.  Yes, that’s often how it feels.  Hopefully it can lead to a return to who we’re really supposed to be, agents of change and transformation, conversion of heart.  The rest means nothing if there’s no foundation to grow on. We become the house on the sand that collapses amid the storm.

I still hope, in God.  I still have faith, in Jesus Christ.  I still love, this journey of conversion and leading others to that place.  It’s why I stay connected, but as I said, more on the edge of the inside.  The more we allow ourselves to be immersed, creating a codependency as is so common, we lose sight of the bigger picture and what really matters and what’s really important.  It’s what allows me to hope, to have faith, and to deepen that love.  As I said at mass a few weeks ago, I hope to see the day when the Church stops living in denial.  Again, don’t get me wrong, many policies were put in place that was necessary, but a lot of what we say still are empty words because policy and doctrine doesn’t change hearts and heal people, God does, pushed often to the edge through our relationships.  Those of us on the front lines of the battle are often all too aware of that.  Hopefully, as the rungs of the ladder are climbed that basic truth isn’t forgotten, less the fall becomes all the more hurtful, painful, and dramatic.  Unfortunately, we’ve become all too familiar with that.  All we can do is live in and with hope that we learn and change and grow out of the ash heap.

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Napping for Answers

I Kings 19: 4-8; John 6: 41-51

I think Elijah has the right idea.  Go find yourself a tree and take a nap.  You can’t beat it.  Unfortunately, even in his sleep he can’t seem to outrun life nor God, being nagged to eat for the journey.  I suppose it can seem rather extreme, praying for death and all.  He’s got a lot going on in his life that he isn’t able to make sense out of in the moment.  Maybe we wouldn’t go to that extent, but I bet we can all relate to him.  Most of us knows what it’s like to be pushed to wits end where we just can’t take anymore, where life seems overwhelming and we can’t possibly take anymore and so we do the same thing, we run away.  We all have our ways of running away.  Yet, like him, life, God, has a way of catching up with us even in those moments of escape.  The very fact that he ends up at a broom tree reminds us that God still has a hand.  It’s one of the few green trees in the desert because of its deep roots, pointing Elijah in the direction of life.  Elijah may not necessarily be having a crisis of faith but he’s certainly having a crisis of vocation, of meaning, of what his purpose is and this call of his in relation to God as prophet.  A nap under a tree seems inviting with all that going on.

Elijah finds himself under attack and on the run from the King and the King’s wife, Jezebel.  She wants him dead for him exposing all the false gods of their time.  Now it’s easy for us to say that we have no such gods in our lives but we’d be lying to ourselves.  They’re often associated with control, fear, boxing in, power as a means to make ourselves feel safe and secure.  They often make us comfortable because they’ve been faithful, but they’re not God.  So here’s Elijah bringing all of this to awareness and then finds himself, by the people who appear to have the most to lose, wanting him dead.  Any one of us would run at that point.  Here’s one of the unique things about Elijah’s story, though.  So many of the others we encounter in Scripture seem to be thrust back into what they’re running from, like Jonah, spit onto shore.  That’s not what happens to Elijah.  He isn’t told to go back and confront Jezebel.  Rather, this God specifically gives Elijah the freedom to wander and to get lost in order that he may be found.  He will wander for forty days and nights we hear today in order to be found.  It is the storied history of Israel of themselves wandering in the desert in order to be found, faithful God every step of the way.

We are probably most familiar with the wandering that will take Elijah to the place where he will finally encounter this mysterious God.  God doesn’t come in the earthquake or anything drastic, but rather in the quiet whisper in Elijah’s heart.  All the angst that he continues to encounter, ironically often in his moments of sleep as we hear today, Elijah finally begins to grow more deeply into the vocation in which God calls him and yet wouldn’t have unfolded for him if he didn’t first have that immediate confrontation with death, leading to him fleeing to the desert, and growing into that freedom given by God to become lost and to wander in order to be found.  We can all relate in those moments of our own lives.  We’ll either cling to what was or we’ll allow ourselves to learn to trust what we cannot hear and yet speaks in the gentleness of our own hearts.

The same crisis is unfolding with the followers of Jesus in today’s gospel from John.  We’re now halfway through the Bread of Life discourse and we now see signs of cracks happening in not just the Pharisees, who we have become accustomed to antagonizing Jesus, but his very followers.  Like Elijah they’re confronted with who this God is and what Jesus is revealing about that God and their inability to grasp it all.  Like Elijah in those waning moments, they don’t want to listen.  They don’t want to hear the truth and they don’t have the capability to listen to what he is saying about this God.  Like Jezebel, they have in their minds who God is and what that all means, neatly packaged, safe and secure, and now all of a sudden, things are changing and scales are falling from their eyes and hearts.  The very fact that they can’t even repeat what it was that Jesus says, changing the words, gives us proof that they don’t want to listen.  In some ways the story ends sadly as the weeks go on because they just can’t handle the truth.  Many will be led to a crisis of faith, vocation, meaning, however you want to describe it.  Like the God that Elijah encounters, though, they too will be given that same freedom to wander and to allow themselves to become lost in order to be found.  There will be that period of wandering in the desert themselves where they will learn to surrender all that they have clung to in order to experience God in a new way, a deeper way, and once again find meaning in their call as followers.

If there is one thing we can say for sure it’s that there are many that find themselves lost and wandering these days.  There are many seemingly wanting to flee life because they find themselves at wits end.  We quickly want to try to find answers and create new boxes to neatly package it all up for ourselves, but that’s not faith.  More often than not we’re led to crises ourselves, wandering and lost in order to be found.  It may be forty days and forty nights, but all along, as with Elijah, God’s hand is there leading us to the broom tree, to the quiet whisper, and ultimately to that place of peace with ourselves and what it is that gives us meaning, nourished through this great mystery we call faith.  It’s why we return to this table weekly to be fed and nourished for the journey is long and tiresome.  We pray, these days, for the grace to embrace the freedom that God gave to Elijah and the followers of Jesus to become lost and to wander.  None of us has all the answers, we can never really be sure, we can cling to our institutionalized gods all we want, but none of it will ever move us to that place of freedom to grow more deeply into our own call.  Becoming lost and finding ourselves wandering is sometimes the greatest gift that can be given to us because we learn what really matters.  It’s only then that we allow ourselves to be found by this God who has already been there every step of the way, leading us to freedom and to greater depths of love and mystery.

A Vulnerable Mission

Amos 7: 12-15; Mark 6: 7-13

I don’t know what Jesus is talking about today.  When I travel anywhere I tend to overpack!  So I was at a conference this past week at a retreat house right on a beach in Jersey.  Now there was no swimming in that spot so it was quite nice and quiet, but I couldn’t help and watch everyone else doing what they do on the beach.  If you’ve been to the beach you probably have noticed, or have been the one, who appears to bring everything with them when they come to the beach even to the point where they can barely carry it all.  It’s crazy.  It looks as if they’re moving in despite knowing that they’re going to have to haul it back in a few hours.  I also, at times, feel like I grew up in antiquity watching them.  I saw a woman with her two daughters.  The two are running while the woman is practically hunched over carrying stuff.  I refrained from saying anything but I couldn’t understand why the kids weren’t carrying it!  If we couldn’t carry it, it didn’t get to the beach!  Not a good way to learn to live without.  We carry a lot of baggage.  If it’s true that our environment says something about our interior landscape then there are many that are carrying serious baggage.

Maybe Jesus has a point then about taking very little.  You know, for a gospel that doesn’t give a lot of specifics, Mark is pretty specific on this point.  You notice there’s not much about what they are to do but it’s very specific about what they should take and not take.  Sure, carrying a lot of stuff, like at the beach, becomes exhausting after awhile, but there are deeper reasons for sending the disciples out in such a fashion.  All that they know about Jesus up to this point is that his encounters have been with the most vulnerable.  He encounters the poor, the sick, those who have been shunned from society and outcasts for one reason or another.  They’re the people that have nothing to lose and pretty much have nothing, including no status in the life of the community.  An encounter with the most vulnerable needs to be met with a great deal of vulnerability and trust as well.  It’s the deeper reason to send them with nothing. 

Yeah, they’re pretty simple guys, simple fishermen themselves.  Although they may not be carrying much physical baggage, they still carry with them ways to avoid the most vulnerable, building walls around themselves to somehow prevent getting hurt, avoid rejection.  It becomes easy to hide behind status, role, career, our belongings, all of which prevents the authentic encounter with the vulnerable one.  As the disciples are sent out two by two today, they aren’t being sent to fix people’s problems or anything like that, but in the process of encountering the vulnerable they also become more aware of themselves.  They become aware of their own demons that act as baggage in their interior life.  It’s how they begin to become aware of it around them and to not give into the fear that they often invoke.  Will they always get it right?  Far from it.  Will they be perfect at it?  Absolutely not.  They’re not Jesus nor are they supposed to.  Will they face rejection like the prophets?  Absolutely, but that too will become a point of meeting and encountering the vulnerable and learning to trust over and over again.

The same is true for Amos in today’s first reading.  Again, a rather simple man.  He’s someone that would prefer to go back to his own way of life of shepherding.  Things seemed much easier for him as that and quite frankly doesn’t want much to do with God or being this prophetic voice.  He learns, though, today, about shaking the dust off of his feet or shaking out the sand and moving on.  Amaziah wants nothing to do with him or his message of God.  Like most of the prophets, the message often sounds quite harsh to the powers that be because they try to maintain the status quo.  They prefer to invoke fear in the people but often at the hands of the most vulnerable.  The poor become forgotten and take the brunt of what is done.  The women and children, the refugees, people fleeing the violence that is often sparked at the hands of the political authorities of their day.  Amos, as he learns of himself as well, learns the difference of when that word falls on deaf ears and moves on.  It doesn’t stop him from being the prophetic voice.  Some are just unable to hear and receive the message.  Just as at times we aren’t.  There are times when people try to reach us and we’re unable to hear and see because we trust more heavily on our own baggage rather than being open to the possibility of God.  Jesus has every reason to send them out today with very little in order not to create a barrier, separating them from the most vulnerable and learning to trust that God will give them all they need.  When it’s not being heard, they shake off the dust and carry on.

We tend to carry a lot with us.  We have all learned ways to avoid pain, suffering, being rejected, but in doing so we close ourselves off to love.  We build walls to separate ourselves rather than allowing ourselves to be vulnerable.  These readings challenge us in our own lives to be aware of what it is we use in our lives that acts as that barrier.  There are times where we need to literally go to the most vulnerable, whether the poorest of the poor on the street or even someone suffering in pain or loneliness in the home next to us.  When we go with a sense of openness and vulnerability, it does as the disciples do today, heals.  It heals not only the other but our own hearts and souls.  The most authentic encounters we can have are when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable before the other and the Other.  It’s too easy to close ourselves off but today Jesus invites us on a different path and a different encounter, one of great vulnerability, opening ourselves not only to the possibility of hurt, but more importantly a great deal of healing, love, and compassion for others and ourselves.

Walking With & By Faith

Ezekiel 17: 22-24; II Cor 5: 6-10; Mark 4: 26-34

Well, it’s good to know that after some 2000 years of history Saint Paul still manages to find his way into public debate as we heard this past week when it comes to families being separated at the border.  He, probably more than anyone else in Scripture, is the most misinterpreted and abused writer in the Bible.  His writings have a way of being weaponized in order to defend things that aren’t intended, all in the name of God.

Paul, though, writes much more from a mystical point of view following his conversion, which makes him so misunderstood.  He, maybe only second to John, have the ability to do what many of the other writers cannot, that being able to stand in the tension.  Paul understands the reality of his own day and the many struggles that are faced, injustices and abuses, but he always keeps an eye on the prize.  He doesn’t see it as either or but rather sees both as long as we live on this earth and does everything try to stand in that place of tension because he understands the consequences when you don’t.

Here’s a guy, writing to Corinth today, who comes to a place where he understands the necessity of the law, body, ego, how every you want to describe it, but also love.  Paul lived a life separated from love and made the law into his own god.  It’s what made him so callous and just a ruthless leader, leading to the murder of early Christians and charging others with murdering them.  He was ruthless because there was no heart.  It’s not that Paul then miraculous abandons the law.  Again, he understand the value and it’s necessity while here but it must be held in tension with the heart, with love, otherwise the leaders to become ruthless.  In the end, he knows, that love wins out because that’s the prize he keeps his eye on and that all else will pass away.  We are, for Paul, all citizens in exile seeking shelter, seeking a home.  We, as a country, can learn something much deeper from Paul in the way we live our lives.  We want to say we’re a country of laws, and it is necessary; but when it becomes a god in and of itself, we too become ruthless towards people.  It’s part of our history and continues to be a part of our history to this day.  There are tremendous implications when we separate from the heart, from love, from God.  Paul stands in that tension and we must as well.  The same is true without the law.  We stand for nothing and have no principle.  Paul reminds his community that both are necessary.  He speaks to the elites of his own day and to ours.  They tried to exclude the poor and those deemed less worthy or a threat to their way of life.  We’re told so well today, walk by faith and not by sight.

It’s the underlying message of the gospel today as well as the farmer, in a nonsensical kind of way, tosses seeds everywhere, which to the naked eye seems wasteful.  However, that’s not necessarily the point.  The farmer knows better than anyone about what happens in places that cannot be seen with the eye.  Now I’m not talking about the corporate farmers of our day.  Rather, these guys knew the land better than anything.  They kept their ear to the ground and learned to have utter trust and faith.  Once the seeds fall into the darkened earth it’s beyond the control of the farmer.  As a matter of fact, if the farmer tries to control it we know the result.  There’s no produce in order for him and his family to live.  He does to the earth that which Paul did to the people.  We become even ruthless towards the earth, thinking it’s our and we can control it.  Yet, deep down lies the heart of God, beating in the depths of the darkness making something happen that just can’t be seen.  The farmer knows it takes trust, it takes a great deal of faith, and a great deal of patience when you walk through the darkness of the earth.  Yet, it’s where God does God’s best work.  To the eye it seems foolish what the farmer does.  To the eye it seems as if we should be able to control this the way we want.  To the eye we become disconnected from our heart and without the heart there is no love and certainly no God.

Paul probably consistently turns over in his grave.  It’s not only politicians, but also religious leaders, who take things out of context, use scripture as a weapon, and allow politics to define faith and God rather than allowing just the opposite.  That’s the brilliance of Paul.  He doesn’t avoid the realities of his own time.  He understands the injustices, the abuses, and everything else because that was his life!  He knows it and lived it.  Now, though, he stands in that tension of this life while waiting the unfolding of the kingdom, the tension of law and love, the tension of mind and heart because he knows the implications when not.  Paul sees as God sees and helps to redefine what is in that context all while trusting what cannot be seen.  For Paul, you have no other choice but to walk through the darkened earth and all that comes with it, the chaos, the fear, the anxiety, because it’s only in the unknown where the farmer learns to trust and to have faith, even the size of a mustard seed.

We pray not only for ourselves but for our country and world that like Paul, we reconnect with our heart, with love, with God, to soften where we have become callous and ruthless towards others while not losing what it is we believe and defines us.  Like Paul, we need to learn to live in that place of tension and to trust and have patience that so many that have gone before us, God will see us through and new life will grow from the darkness and the cedar will once again bloom.  The more we separate, exclude, fear, live in anxiety, and begin to believe that it’s about only what we see with our eyes, we literally lose sight of what is most important, what we cannot see and yet always at work deep within us for we are called, as Paul tells Corinth, to walk by faith and not by sight.  We are called to trust what we cannot see and like the farmer, keep our hearts and ears close to the ground for when the Lord has spoken, so will the Lord do.  We pray for the grace to walk by faith and not by sight, even if it means walking in the darkest of days.

A Living Icon

Deut 4: 32-34, 39-40; Romans 8: 14-17

Image result for rublev trinity

One of the most profound interpretations of the feast we celebrate today is Rublev’s Trinity.  It’s a 15th Century Russian icon that is probably one of the most known.  At face value it actually is a story that we don’t hear today but did at some point this past year, of three visitors, or angels, that visit Abraham and Sarah who are about to turn their lives upside down when they are told they will give birth to Isaac.  Rublev has these three images that all look alike and yet dressed differently sitting around a table or altar.  Now I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but there is a similar scene in the movie version of The Shack when the father is at wits end and finds himself gathered at the table with the three persons of God.  It is believed that that was Rublev’s intention that the fourth one to gather at table was you and me, humanity.  The more you find yourself invited at table the more you participate in this force of love, union, and oneness, and you become that mystery.

One such person that certainly exemplifies that is Moses who we hear from in the first reading from Deuteronomy.  Moses often found himself being drawn back to that table to gaze into the eyes of God that he becomes one of the great figures of salvation history.  He’s well aware that others are not in the same place as him on this journey, as they still wander seeking their own gods, but he’s there to remind them of what he has experienced in that participation with mystery and how it is transforming his own life.  He recalls for Israel today their own history as a people and the many times they have not only wandered, but how the true God of mystery, unfolding within and among them, has seen them through some of their most difficult challenges as a people.  He takes them back to the beginning reminding them of their own creation as a people and they have been created in that image and likeness of God.  Now Moses doesn’t keep returning to the mountain to convince God that God is someone else or give to give God pointers on what needs to be done and what the people want, rather he returns to that place to soak in that mystery and allow it to consume his life to his deepest core, a core that is that image and likeness.  Like Israel, where we fail and find ourselves wandering is when we want to create God in our own image and likeness rather than allowing ourselves to be transformed by the unfolding mystery.  It’s the mastery of Rublev’s icon because you can’t take your eyes off of it as you gaze at it’s beauty and mystery, drawing you more and more into the mystery of God and the mystery of our own lives.  Without mystery, life becomes dull as do our relationships.

It is, as well, the pinnacle to Paul’s message to the Romans in today’s second reading on becoming the adopted children of God.  Paul is fully aware that people wander.  He himself has wandered in his own life, seeking that sense of meaning from something beyond the divine indwelling.  His view for the Romans comes from the masters who have had their own experience and literally adopt one of their slaves as their own.  This experience at table with mystery has a way of breaking down the many barriers that we create for ourselves, separating ourselves, one from another, as was true in a master-slave model.  Paul, though, like Moses, continues to take them back to the beginning and remind them of who they have always been as children of God, born in that image and likeness.  Like Moses, the more he gazes and the more we gather at table with that mystery that unfolds and in its almost seductive manner, transforms without us evening knowing and grow into that image and likeness.  We become living icons, where we’re not God, but our lives simply point to the mystery that has drawn us in and have fallen in love with while participating in that love and that mystery.

As we celebrate this great feast, we gather in the name of that one God who invites us to Rublev’s table and to participate in their radical hospitality of drawing us into love, mystery, and union.  We will never completely understand any of this and shouldn’t think we can.  We will never completely know it because it is beyond knowledge as we know it.  Rather, it is a knowing that lies deep within, where heart speaks to heart, often being dragged in like the guy in The Shack, finally moving to a place of surrender.  It takes utter faith and trust on our part, a dark night as it’s known, to trust in such a way.  When we allow ourselves to be used that way, by mystery and love, we become transformed in such a way that we are the living icons for a world that has enough of its own gods, we simply point to the one true God.  This is a God that keeps expanding our hearts and that very table for it is only in love that we have space for all, no matter, color, where we’re from, background, lifestyle, the many who have wandered far from “home”.  The mastery of Rublev’s Trinity is that there is space for everyone, knowing like Abraham and Sarah, when we finally surrender to mystery, our lives may be turned upside down, but better that than anything else.  We pray for the grace to become these living icons in the world today, where all we do and say points to love, to mystery, to union and oneness, to the one true God who continues to unfold that very mystery in the world today.

Becoming

Acts 9: 26-31; John 15: 1-8

If you know anything about Paul’s conversion story from Acts, of which we catch the tail end today, it’s that he was the number one threat to the followers of the Way, which was the name used before Christian.  He was enemy number one and a threat to their way of life.  Not only that, but just prior to his conversion he was responsible for the death of one of the most beloved of the Way, Stephen, who was stoned to death and then on Paul’s travels has this radical transformation.

It should be no surprise then when he shows up in Jerusalem today they’re very skeptical and fearful of him.  He still looks like the Paul who was responsible for the death of many followers and early disciples and now wants to be one of the group after believed to have gone through this conversion experience.  Just think if we were in that situation, knowing all that Paul was capable of, we too would be fearful and skeptical.  He could have been trying to infiltrate the group in order to blow them up from within or to dismantle them at his own doing.  It will be, though, only as they lock arms with one another, walking through the streets of Jerusalem, will there finally be a public affirmation for who Paul had become as fellow follower and disciple.

Ironically, for the man who had become blind through this experience of radical transformation, Paul’s blindness in turn reveals the blindness of the followers of the Way and their own fearfulness and judgment.  This experience of Paul is not a one-time deal, but a call that the disciples will have to continually embrace, this call to conversion and radical transformation.  In some sense, Paul stands as the change of tide for this community for he was not an original and did not have the first-hand account of Jesus as people like Peter did and so it often created conflict as to how they understood the faith.  One thing, though, that linked them, despite their differences, was when there were difficulties, the community would pull them and draw them back into their source of life, to remain, abide, to stay with the Lord, as Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel.

This is not to say that they all lived happily ever after.  It is well known that Paul was somewhat of a hellion!  Again, his lived experience was very different from the original disciples and so there were often misunderstandings within the community.  It makes you wonder that when we hear at the end of the reading today that he’s shipped off to Tarsus as if it wasn’t intentional!  Paul, though, understood, as we know from his writings, of that necessity of Jesus’ farewell discourse in John about where it is he receives life.  He no longer has to look at the world through the eyes of fear, narrowness, violence, or even death, but through the eyes of his own lived experience of Christ crucified.  He has to keep returning to the vine for the true life and he knows that no matter how difficult it may become or the many obstacles they will face as a community, they will be seen through when the keep returning and abiding and being nurtured by what and who gives them life.

I don’t know the exact account but that message of return, abide, and stay with is quite dominant in these chapters of John’s Gospel.  It’s almost as if Jesus knew he’d have to say it in a thousand different ways and days in order for it to begin to sink into the minds and hearts of the disciples that despite the hostility of the world that they are going to experience first-hand, there is still a greater life that you pursue in becoming his disciples.  Over and over again, like in Acts, they will be called to critique their own calling and what it is that is going to need to be surrendered and let go of, whether it’s fear creeping in or their judgments towards people like Paul or the world for that matter.  It’s so easy to become part of the problem by our own unease of the unknown and to give into fear, choosing fear over faith and love.  Over the course of their lives it will continue to be revealed to them what it means to be a disciple.  What it means today will be very different for them when that community begins to form but no matter what, they will return in order to be fed, nurtured, and to be given life.  They will become disciples and will be a presence of love to a hostile world.

Paul’s story as well as the disciples is very much our own story of becoming disciples.  It’s always changing, evolving, and being called to radical transformation ourselves.  However, at times we still cling to vines that no longer feed yet still disguise themselves as life.  We cling to our own fears, judgments, and even violence, rather than allowing our own blindness, like Paul, to be revealed to and through us in order to move us to a deeper sense of discipleship.  In a world that so often is torn by violence and division, driven by politics and individual agendas and ideologies, we must stand together with locked arms, like the followers of the Way, in order to bring about transformation to a hurting world.  We may never change the institutional structures in which we live and operate, but we can be witnesses to a changed heart, a free heart, that models not violence and fear but rather faith and love.  It is in that way that we continue to become his disciples.

It’s in the Name

Acts 4: 32-35; 1 John 5: 1-6; John 20: 19-31

Poor Thomas!  If there’s to be a study done on why labeling people is not a good thing, Thomas would be the classic study.  Doubting Thomas as we know it and all he’s really known for because of this one passage.  He was destined for such labels.  I’m still not convinced that he’s even a doubter as much as he is in disbelief and grieving at this point of the story.  None of us would be much better.  All this and Thomas is even really a huge character in John’s Gospel.  He only appears twice.  The other is at the Raising of Lazarus.  The other unique thing of Thomas is that he’s only one of two who’s name is also given in Greek, Didymus.  Simon is called Cephas at the beginning of the Gospel, who’s Peter.  Thomas is the only other so maybe the passage has more to do with his name, Didymus meaning twin or double.

The name probably describes all of them at this point of the story, living two different lives.  While they find themselves in the Upper Room they’re somewhat bursting with joy in the Risen Lord but no sooner do they step out that door fear takes over.  That inside is somewhat of a comfort for them, where they can be themselves but they end up living a double life.  They’re not there yet.  As much as they have had this experience of the Risen Lord it still has not been embodied by them.  It’s still something beyond them and what they see with their eyes and not something lived.  Like us, they’re good at compartmentalizing their faith at this point of the story, living a double life and not knowing what it all means, still unfolding for and in them.

It’s not until we get to Acts of the Apostles where we begin to see how that love manifests itself in the life of the early community.  Like the Gospel today, we’re also good at labeling the message Luke conveys twice in Acts.  We want to label it socialism or communism but it had nothing to do with creating some kind of economic structure that we’re familiar with today.  That says more about us than it does them.  But they can point the way, for us, to look at our own lives and what it is that moves us.  That’s the real message of Luke today.  It is by no means that everything was just perfect in the Early Church.  Far from it if you read Acts in its entirety.  But Luke will keep drawing them back to what gives life.  He’s going to keep drawing them back to what it is that motivates and defines the community as one of integrity.  If they’re not being motivated by love, then they need to step back and evaluate where fear is creeping in, where it’s becoming about self-interest.  When we’re motivated by fear, success, wealth, self-interest, then the gap only grows, anxiety and fear take over, and we begin to live that double life ourselves.

We need to move to a place where we recognize that we never fully embody that love.  As long as we are here and breathing our motivation and what drives us will become skewed.  We become blinded by everything else.  It’s why the wounds of Christ in the gospel are so significant and how they connect to that early community.  When that gap begins to grow and they start to become closed in on themselves, locked in the Upper Room, they are once again invited to come back.  As much as they are sent forward, they are also called to come back to that love.  To step inside the wounds, even their own, and it will once again open their eyes.  That’s the significance of the reading from Acts today.  They recognize the needs of the community through their very own woundedness.  Their eyes are open to the poor.  Their eyes are open to members of the community in need.  It’s not being motivated by economics.  They’re motivated by love.

These readings on this Second Sunday of Easter challenge us to look at what motivates us at this point in our lives.  What is it that’s pushing us forward and where do we put our faith.  That’s John’s message in the second reading today.  As much as the disciples may still fear the world beyond the locked doors in that gospel, it is only faith and love that is going to break through the locks and push them out and to embody that love that they have experienced.  It’s not meant to be kept to ourselves.  Then love is not our motivation.  Rather, when we embody that love we know we have nothing to fear and we change the world not through fear, economics, self-interest, but rather love.  Victory in the hostility of the world is not won through war but through love.  That’s the message of John on this Easter Day.  Nothing else.

Where have we allowed the gap between our lives and Love to ever increase through fear, self-interest, and motivations other than faith and love?  Where are we locked up inside, afraid that somehow I won’t have enough and so I can’t give in love, holding on for dear life?  That’s where that gap grows and like the disciples in that Upper Room, we live a double life.  Faith becomes something we simply do on Sunday morning and then go about our business, often in fear, once we walk through those doors.  Yes, we come to this place to be nourished and to be fed and the more we are fed and nourished in love, the more we have to confront the world when we step forward.  We come and are nourished in order to be sent out to be the disciples, to embody that love, and to narrow the gap between faith and our lives.  It’s an ongoing process and one that never ends but also one we don’t go at alone.  We walk this journey together in order to embody that love not just by ourselves but as a community of faith.